You probably haven't given much thought to the problems in Mali, but United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has, and his advice on military intervention in that West African country could be summed up in two words: forget it. Although, being a diplomat, he actually used a great many more words than that.
Mali's 14 million people are almost all Muslims, but there is a deep ethnic divide between the black African majority in the southern half of the country and the Tuaregs (only 10 per cent of the population) who dominate the desert northern half. Last March, a military coup in the capital, Bamako, distracted the Malian army long enough for Tuareg separatists to seize control of the entire north.
The Tuareg separatists had been in business for many years, but an influx of weapons and fighters from Libya after the fall of the Gadhafi regime gave them a new impetus. Having driven government troops out of the north and declared the independent nation of Azawad, however, the separatists were then rapidly pushed aside by Islamic extremists who declared a jihad against practically everybody.
A military coup in a West African nation, even if the government then lost control of half the country to separatists, would normally be of interest only to other West African states. The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) might back military intervention to reunite the country, or it might not, but the rest of the world would ignore it. Not this time.
What set alarms bells ringing in the United States and Europe was the fact that al-Qaida in the Maghreb (AQIM) is a major force in the alliance of Islamist fundamentalists that now controls northern Mali. The mere mention of al-Qaida sets western governments salivating like Pavlov's dogs, and the issue of reconquering northern Mali suddenly got onto the international agenda.
Western countries have been pushing for a UN Security Council resolution authorizing military action against the rebels for months, and in October they got their way. The resolution gave regional leaders 45 days to provide plans for an international military intervention to oust the rebels in northern Mali, and the U.S. government recently said that war is now "inevitable."
As that deadline approached, Ban Ki-Moon wrote his letter to the Security Council condemning the rush to military action: "I am profoundly aware that if a military intervention in the north is not well conceived and executed, it could worsen an already fragile humanitarian situation and also result in severe human rights abuses. Fundamental questions on how the force would be led, sustained, trained, equipped and financed remain unanswered."
"A military operation may be required as a last resort to deal with the most hardline extremists and criminal elements in the north," Ban conceded, "but before that stage is reached, the focus must be on initiating a broad-based and inclusive national dialogue."
Diplomatic buzzwords, certainly, but he is fighting for time, and that's all he has.
But U.S. drones are already overflying northern Mali on a daily basis. U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta has refused to rule out direct American support for training or other operations on the ground in Mali. A real war will soon start in Mali.
It would involve the same kind of UN intervention force that has been fighting the Islamist al-Shabab militia in Somalia: African countries provide the troops, and western countries cover the costs. But whereas the Ugandan, Kenyan and Burundian armies that are doing the heavy lifting in Somalia are reasonably competent soldiers, the West African armies that would provide the troops in Mali are not.
Take the biggest army in the region, for example. As a senior Malian official told The Guardian newspaper last month, "The Nigerian army is in a shocking state. There is no way they are capable of forward operations in Mali...The Nigerian forces lack training and kit, so they simply don't have the capability to carry out even basic military manoeuvres. They have poor discipline and support."
So who will pick up the pieces if the ECOWAS force, already unpopular in Mali, fails to recover the north? Probably western troops, but that would trigger powerful anti-western reactions all over Africa. It might produce a military victory and reunify Mali by force, but it would be a political disaster. The extremists could not hope for a better recruiting tool.
This whole operation is being driven by a reflex panic about terrorism. But northern Mali is a very long way from anywhere else, and there are no flights out.
The better approach would be to wait for the rebels in the north to fall out and start fighting one another, as they probably will. Meanwhile, train and equip Mali's own army for the task of retaking the north by force, if that ever becomes necessary, although the fact that it is currently run by the same turbulent and ignorant junior officers who made last March's disastrous coup certainly doesn't help.
Still, Ban Ki-Moon is right. Sometimes the best thing to do is as little as possible.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.